In a sudden move that will severely limit the ability of journalists and citizen watchdogs to know about crimes as they are happening in local neighborhoods, the Palo Alto Police Department began encrypting all of its police radio communications Tuesday afternoon.
The policy change, which was adopted with no forewarning and without any direction from the City Council, is intended to bring the city into compliance with a requirement that the California Department of Justice enacted last October, according to the city.
Under this requirement, police agencies must protect personally identifiable information from state and federal databases from being broadcast on an open radio frequency. This includes such information as an individual's name, driver's license number, Social Security number and passport number. They are also required to restrict the release of "criminal justice information," including an individual's criminal history, through an open channel.
The state order allows cities to meet the requirement in one of two ways. An agency can establish policies that restrict the dissemination of personally identifiable while still transmitting other information through an open frequency. Or it can take a more restrictive approach and encrypt all of its communications, effectively ending a decadeslong journalistic practice of responding to breaking news based on information picked up from a police scanner.
In an email to local media, the Palo Alto Police Department said that it is taking the latter approach. The department's decision to encrypt the channel, rather than come up with other protocols for protecting personally identifiable information, was driven by the fact that this option was much easier and quicker to implement, Police Chief Robert Jonsen told this news organization. He also said that because this is an operational issue, the City Council had no role in developing the new policy.
"It's just made the most sense to do that," Jonsen said.
One option for shielding only personally identifiable and criminal justice information would be to require police officers to use other devices, such as cell phones, when transmitting personally identifiable information, he said. That, however, may complicate an officer's ability to quickly transmit information to all relevant parties.
"It becomes an officer-safety issue if we have them transitioning over and hopping from one channel to another," Jonsen said.
"Even though there are other options, developing protocols and practices would be time consuming and would have likely had significant costs associated with it."
He noted that the department's Technical Services Division is now prioritizing the implementation of a record management system for collecting data on all police stops, a requirement of the Racial and Identity Profiling Act (RIPA). He noted that the department is open to reconsidering its decision on encryption at a later date.
"We're open to options. We're not going to close the door if we find viable options and solutions," Jonsen said.
With the policy change, Palo Alto is joining a growing list of cities inside and outside the state to switch to encrypted radio communications for reasons having to do with privacy, tactics or both. According to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a nonprofit that provides legal resources for journalists, the list of cities and counties that have recently made such a switch to encrypted communication includes Denver, Colorado; Racine, Wisconsin; Sioux City, Iowa; Lancaster County, Pennsylvania; and Baltimore, Maryland.
The Simi Valley Police Department became the first agency in Ventura County to fully encrypt all of its radio communications last November, according to a report in the Ventura County Star. Police Chief David Livingstone told the Star that the department chose to switch to full encryption because it was quicker and easier to do that than to create a system in which only sensitive information is transmitted to an encrypted channel. He also cited incidents in which criminals used open police feeds to plan criminal activity, according to the paper.
However, the Star also reported that Livingstone hoped the switch would be temporary and that an arrangement providing more public access could be found.
Legislators have made efforts to give the news media access to police broadcasts through decryption licenses, but those attempts have not been successful. In Colorado and California, bills were proposed, including California's AB1555. Introduced by Assemblymember Todd Gloria, D-San Diego, in 2019, it would have allowed members of the media to listen upon request.
Jocelyn Dong, editor of Palo Alto Weekly and Palo Alto Online, criticized the Palo Alto policy for curbing the public's access to police information.
"The inability for the public, including the news media, to access real time information about police activities in the city's neighborhoods is a major step backwards in both police transparency and public safety," Dong said. "Access to police dispatches is essential given the lack of any reliable method of obtaining information quickly from the police. It's our hope that the city will choose methods of communication that balance public disclosure with the need to transmit certain information privately."
In a blog post, Jonsen stated that the decision to encrypt all radio transmissions "does not change the Police Department’s commitment to transparency and sharing of public information." He also stated that all law enforcement agencies in Santa Clara County will adopt full encryption by the end of 2021.
The directive from the Department of Justice did not set a deadline for police departments to enact a new encryption policy. It did, however, require them to submit an implementation plan by Dec. 31, 2020.